As part of the El Paso Herald-Post’s mission to spark dialogue, discussion, thought and solutions we present Pizza with a Politician. It’s simply a conversation, with a local politician over pizza. All on the record, no set direction or pre-screened questions. And a delicious pizza.
On a rapidly warming Tuesday in Downtown El Paso, we return to House of Pizza (208 North Stanton – mind the construction) for the 4th in our series of lunches-conversations. This time, it was with Mayoral Runoff Candidate Dee Margo; over a medium pepperoni and cheese pizza, we discussed his campaign and vision for the city.
While Dee has called El Paso home for 40 years, his Texas familial roots date back to the 1850’s; he graduated from Vanderbilt University, took over and built a successful business (John D. Williams Company) in El Paso.
CB – I’m going to start with a question that I’ve asked everyone else: Why run, given the current political climate – seeming dissatisfaction with politicians in general, from the office of the President on down to the council and school boards?
Dee – The irony of it, Chris, is that I get asked this question fairly frequently, but it’s not so much because of the negativism out there…or the environment or whatever, its just because I don’t need to do this and I wouldn’t be running if I didn’t care about El Paso.
I wouldn’t have done the EPISD Board of Managers if I didn’t care about El Paso, I wouldn’t have run for the State Representative (seat) if I didn’t care. I’ve said it several times, this community gave me roots…I grew up moving every three years. I hated it, really hated it; and I was just fortunate enough to meet a lady in college -she brought me back – and now I’ve been here 40 years, married to a third generation El Pasoan, and I’ve got fifth generation grandchildren…and I just love this community and care about it…and – frankly – that’s the only reason I’m running
CB – You talk about the last 40 years here in El Paso, but in the last 10 years or so, there’s been this change of attitude; have you seen that in your travels around the city – for lack of a better word, the rebirth of the city – or a return to the time when El Paso was the Capital of the Southwest, like we were in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s?
Dee – I honestly do…I think we’re on our way back. I’ve said it before: we’re on the cusp of a real renaissance, not only with all the physical, capital investments going on, there’s a resurgence of attitude which is as much as a driver as anything else.
Frankly I think our personal perspectives are a bigger resource than the financial resources coming to bear; to pass all these bond elections, have downtown redevelopment, even with all the transportation projects and problems, once it’s all done, it’s going to be phenomenal. You can tell it’s coming from wherever you look in this community.
So, I think…it’s coming. You know – back in the 50’s – we had a higher income level than the rest of the state of Texas, and even Nationally, so here we are today, dropping from 1950 to 1990 and we’re 29-30% below both averages. I think if we could get our educational component up there, start turning around the job opportunities, we ought to be someone to be reckoned with.
We’ve got the largest, bi-national, bilingual workforce in the world – I mean – nobody can match what we have here and I just think we need to tell our story and not have others tell our story.
CB – You mention education, and you’ve got a unique perspective on this, owing to the fact that you’ve served both sides – both on the civic governmental side and on the educational oversight side…some may think both positions are similar, but they’re two different animals completely…as mayor, how do you plan on making those two systems work together for the mutual benefit?
Dee – I think the economic viability of our community is going to be solely predicated on our education of our workforce. It’s not just hiring, its secondary. Since I was on appropriations in the state legislature, I understand the educational funding where we were, but spending two years in the trenches at EPISD, it was a complete turnaround.
A $480 million budget and we had to do a complete turnaround; we had the superintendent, we had to deal with the FBI, we had to deal with all these issues and we had to get it turned around. I spent close to 40 hours a week, for two years – and just so your readers understand, we weren’t compensated – but, I learned a lot and I think it’s just critical to this community that we have good schools, to build a good outcome; we’re not going to attract any capital investment or labor market opportunities unless we have the educated workforce.
I used to kind of debate in my own mind well, if we can bring employers in, we can help train people and we’ll be ok. Well, it not. It starts with the education of our workforce – first and foremost – then we can attract new employers or expand existing ones: I don’t want to just talk about bringing new businesses in, I’d love to see an expansion of the ones we have.
CB – With the decline of manufacturing – specifically the apparel industry here in El Paso – and us switching to more of a component-based manufacturing industry where you have all these different maquilas on both sides of the border producing components for larger assemblies, and the rest of the workforce transitioned into a sales/retail-based economy; can we ever recover the large manufacturing base here in El Paso?
Dee – I think there’s still a place for it; especially given the benefits of locating in Mexico, I mean our economy is still predicated on the maquilas, irrespective of the fact that our largest employer is Fort Bliss and our second largest is the El Paso Independent School District, so you have two governmental entities driving our employment base, that’s not ideal by a long shot; but with our income levels, really determined by the maquilas and what they bring in and their tertiary support industries…there’s still a place for it – it’s gotta be done somewhere.
Mexico, has some of the components – the factors – that are significant to allow us to improve; you know you take the transportation/distribution component, the fact that Mexico is so much closer to North America than China, that’s where Mexico has been taking manufacturing jobs from China. So I think we can still build on that; I really think we need to have a vision that says ‘We are the North American base for all trade with South America.’ That our border community ought to be the center of all North American trade with Latin America.
CB – So how would you work with Juarez to turn that vision into reality?
Dee – Well, the whole premise of the Borderplex Alliance which was formed -and I was part of that group – we took economic development as a private-sector initiative, away from the Chamber of Commerce, the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce, in 2005. We established a regional, economic development corporation – called REDCO and I was one of the founders of that as well, and that was our first attempt to regionalize our economic development activities.
Then when we merged REDCO into the Paso Del Norte Group, and formed the Borderplex Alliance, we continued to affirm that concept that we are a strong region – Mexico, El Paso, and Southern New Mexico – as an economic entity; so think we’re progressing in the right direction, I like the things that the Borderplex Alliance is doing and I think the job of the mayor should be an Ambassador for Jobs.
CB – Switching gears, just a bit, let’s talk about the arena…this project has run into serious problems. Community members pointing at this particular project, saying the city is just running roughshod over their concerns, feeling like their elected officials are dictating both the scope and final location…what’s your take on the entire arena issue?
Dee – I think that the delays of implementing what we voted on – that over 70% of us voted yes on back in 2012 – with the main concern being are we affecting our cultural heritage. Well, according to architects I’ve spoken to, that are considered experts in historical preservation, cultural heritage, etc., are telling me that the footprint – as designed – is not doing harm to our treasures in the Duranguito area.
I also understand that virtually all the land owners have agreed to sell and I’ve heard from residents telling us that actually going to have better housing than they have now, thanks to the relocation. So, my point is, we voted for it…I spoke the chair of that particular bond issue, and he said that – in spite of the litigation and that those that are against it – that they sold it on the point of it being in downtown, in that area, and all the studies point to that.
My position: if the voters voted for it, we need to implement it; we need to implement it as soon as possible, because the associated costs are going up.
CB – So, after the arena goes in…what’s next for El Paso? What’s the next big project we’ll see during a potential Margo Mayoral term, because we’ve got the trolley, the roads, all the construction in downtown…so what’s next?
Dee – Well, I think we need to get all these projects completed. I think our plates are pretty dadgum full, and I don’t think that the taxpayers have anymore appetite for that or any increases in their property taxes or taxes in general…we’re having a confluence of bonds here – Ysleta bonds, EPISD bonds, City bonds – I mean, altogether its a hard hit and, quite frankly, we’re going to find ourselves in a classic ‘supply and demand’ situation – we’re about to have a greater demand on contractors and labor than we have supply here in the city, so what happens when you have an increase in that kind of demand – you’ll see costs go up.
So I’m concerned about our ability to complete the projects, prosecute the work and finish on time and on budget; when we ought to be concerned with ahead of time and below budget, but I’m not sure we’re going to get that.
Wherever I go in this community, all they want to talk about are the potholes and taxes, they want to talk about public safety, and they want to talk about jobs; and those are the things we need to take care of – the basics – we’ve got enough going on.
Like with the hotel projects, if we can get them all done, then we can start collecting more sales tax revenues from people coming in and purchasing our goods and services, and spending time in El Paso.
Everybody says we only have 2% of the cultural heritage tourism from the visitors to the state of Texas, look at what we have here – we have much more than anywhere else in the state, so we can promote some of these things; but I think our future revenue base is going to grow not so much on property taxes, but I’d love to see us increase our commercial property tax base, but I think it’s going to be driven by the sales tax revenues. And that’s our hope for the future, to take care of the costs we’re dealing with.
CB – Continuing on the theme of construction and development, are we at a nexus now where we have to choose between building for residents or building for tourists. Are we going to build the mythic Six Flags El Paso, or are we going to buckle down and take care of the everyday El Pasoan’s quality of life or is there a balance possible between the two?
Dee – Well, I’m not sure that we can balance it now, given our revenue streams and asset base, I would say we need to take care of our issues first; now some of the expansion we’re having on retail trade and more lifestyle centers – stores and things like that – I think is serves both populations, tourists and residents.
But I think we need to take care of what we’ve got here, first.
CB – Once all these projects are done, pretty much in a timeline that puts it within your potential first term, what would you then turn the city’s attention to?
Dee – Well, I’d hope we’d be planning much further out than that, I think there’s some things we need to take care of locally; the people in the Northeast, they’re fit to be tied over Cohen Stadium. We’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do with that asset. We’ve got to turn it into an appreciating asset, rather than a depreciating one. It has to be turned into a facility that the people of the Northeast – and all of El Paso – can be proud of.
We need to study that…and I’ve heard those residents over and over again on Cohen Stadium; it’s not the place for an arena, but what can be there? We need to do that, and then of course there’s the County Coliseum, and there’s a debate on that one…I think we also need to do more shared services with the County, to maximize our financial resources.
County has a Parks and Rec department, city has one too; years ago we had a City-County board of health, now we don’t have that anymore – I think we should. The Police and Sheriff’s academy, is there a way to combine them? Because, from a law enforcement standpoint, my understanding is it’s basically the same training, so why can’t we work together to maybe lower the costs of that training.
There’s just a lot of things to work on, we haven’t had – historically – the most cohesive and functioning city council, there just so many basic things we need to focus on, before we take any big leaps…we have to get our act together on the small stuff, to get ready for the big stuff.
For instance, we go out and re-do San Jacinto Plaza…great venue, I love to bring my grandchildren down there…but no rest rooms. Why? Why? That’s inhumane and an abomination…so we can’t continue to do certain things, tripping over nickles to save pennies.
CB – Looking at city and county cooperation, then looking at the areas that the city can grow – northwest and far-east El Paso where the boundaries blur, what kind of infrastructure are we looking at there and will it be a situation where the costs will be shared?
Dee – Possibly…it would depend on the type of infrastructure, because clearly some of it is going to be the responsibility of the state; for instance we still haven’t finalized the transportation plan that’s been discussed for over ten years now…going back to when I was in the legislature, about the Anthony Gap.
You know, I’d love to get the semis off I-10, if they’re just going to bypass El Paso anyway, let’s get that built…Joe Pickett talked about that, we’ve all talked about it, we just need to get it into our MPO and get it finalized. Let’s get them off our roads, and lessen the wear and tear to I-10.
CB – When you look at I-10 and the other main roads, is there any room for further expansion or are we pretty much locked in?
Dee – Well, we’re doing things right now that should have been done 30 years ago, I-10 becomes a parking lot between Sunland Park and Executive Center anytime there’s a incident, even a small one. You shut down one or two lanes, and your dead. Now we’ll have some access off – the Paisano project for instance – but I think we’ll have to wait until it’s done in 2018 to see if that’s enough.
CB – So what do you think the hold up was? Why did it take 30 years to get all these projects done…was it the city coming out of its shell, was it the people or a combination of different events?
Dee – I think its a combination of a lot of things…great advocacy coming from our elected officials at the state level; the fact that we had the Chairman of TxDot as an appointee, we’ve had the Chairman of the UT Board of Regents is an El Pasoan, you know we have many positive things, we just got the approval for the Dental School at Texas Tech, I serve on the board of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute Oversight for Texas that gives out $300 million a year in research and prevention grants and we just got our first true research grant for Texas Tech for cancer research – and that puts the researcher and his lab there.
In the past, most of that type of growth has happened in the I-35 corridor from UT Southwest all the way down to MD Anderson…and Baylor Med and those others have gone where the infrastructure is, while we’re getting our ‘firsts’ – all of that is a positive for us.
You’re talking about folks in BioMedical enterprises and the Medical Center for the Americas, you’ve got the increases in nursing schools, I think we got some real positives, they just need to come to fruition…we’re just now having our first medical school classes coming out, so I think it’s not so much ‘wait and see’ as it is ‘wait and observe’ all the groundwork has been done, and now we’re seeing the first results.
CB – Let’s say we’re one or two years down the road, in the middle of a Margo mayoral term, what one or two things can you point to as successes?
Dee – I’d like to see us accomplish the bond project, having them completed on time and – hopefully – under budget. I’d like to see our downtown redevelopment completed, with the hotel projects, which will enhance our ability to attract the conventions and things like that to the arena. I think we get everything to fruition, we’re going to have a lot to be proud of.
Then – at the same time – get rid of the false narrative that we have all this violence here, the mayor, the city council, all our elected officials from Washington to the state level, we need to have a unified articulation of who we are. We’re still being defined by others as having violence here, we’re going to have to work with Juarez, taking advantage of all the assets we have here and fight back, but I don’t think we’ve done that.
We gotta determine who we are, with our own voice – not the voices of others.
CB – Do you think that’s one of the main issues facing us: that people outside of our area have defined us?
Dee – Yep! Absolutely. Absolutely! I’m convinced of it. Everyone of those individuals who would come in and try to define us – in most cases – have never been here. They’re just echoing the false narrative.
CB – Would you be willing to invite some of those people down and give them a tour?
Dee – Absolutely. I’ve done it for years. I did it while I was in the legislature…my wife Adair, there’s no bigger advocate for the City of El Paso than she is. I know that (Representative) Will Hurd’s done that, I know (Representative) Beto (O’Rourke) has done that…
CB – And when you did do that, what was the response…did they show up and be completely dumbfounded by the truth?
Dee – Every single one of them. Half of them in the Texas Legislature think we’re some flat, desert area. My deskmate while I was in the legislature – who is now the Chairman of the Natural Resources – he fell in love with UTEP, he thinks UTEP is the prettiest campus he’s ever seen and he’s a Texas A & M grad.
And we took him around town, to the Desal plant -that’s his big issue – and that’s how he learned the truth. They don’t understand who we are as a people, or as a region. They just don’t understand the bi-national, bilingual nature of our community.
CB – If you could do one thing, to get that correct message out there, what would it be?
Dee – Make sure all of those who have influence in this community, are articulating the same message, over and over and over again. And that we’re all singing off the same sheet of music.
CB – Ok, final question: so there’s this mythic, singular El Paso resident, lives in Central, has a house, family, bills, etc – and he’s on the fence about voting this Saturday. What do you have to say to that voter to get him or her off the fence and in the booth to vote?
Dee – Well, we’ve got a lot of challenges we’re facing…everything from potholes to taxes, and I believe I’m the only candidate who’s had the experience in dealing with that; I’ve built a business, ran it for 34 years, built it to the largest in the area and sold it, served in the legislature, served as the Civilian Aide to the Secretary of the Army for 8 years, I was heavily involved in the BRAC process; so I understand the and know Fort Bliss which is our largest employer, and so critical to this community; spent two years in the trenches at the El Paso Independent School District Board of Managers, where we were greeted with a $20 million deficit, when we found that out, we closed it out with no tax increase or teacher layoffs.
So it’s one of those things where I’ve been there, been tried, been tested and I think I know how to resolve the problems facing us.